Sunday, February 24, 2008

Golf Ain't A Sport, And Neither Is Turkey Farming

I stumbled upon a good catalyst, if you will, for class discussion regarding critical thinking. This past Thursday I was attempting to engage my class in a discussion on that particular topic by asking them what they thought constituted critical thinking, in the first place, and when they have been called upon to practice it. Unfortunately, and as usual, they were not forthcoming in offering any opinions and/or ideas on the matter, which left me looking out on a bank of faces so devoid of interest--intellectual, practical, or otherwise--that I was half-tempted to line them up and, one by one, show 'em both sides of my hand, in a manner of speaking. Instead, I asked how many of them were sports enthusiasts, either as participants, fans, or both. Naturally, most of them showed some sign of assent, even if they maintained their vigilant reticence. Venturing further, I asked if any of them were baseball fans, in particular. Again, many of them gave some indication that they were. "Good," I said. "How would you feel, then, if I told you that baseball isn't a sport, it's a game?" A small thing, really, but I shit you not, the room erupted in a cacophony of dissenting voices.

This may sound silly to some of you; I don't know and I really don't care if it does. But I was simply excited that I had finally said something to elicit impassioned responses from most of my students. From that point forward, I basically played devil's advocate by hammering their every emotional objection and logical argument against my declaration. This led to questions like, "Well, what about Nascar? Do you consider that a sport?" No, I don't consider it a sport because it's not one. "But it takes a lot of physical and mental endurance to drive those cars and those guys are drained when it's over." So? My old man was an over-the-road truck driver, driving sometimes halfway across the United States in a single run, at the end of which he had to unload his own truck. Needless to say, it took a great deal of physical and mental endurance, and he was surely wiped out at the end of his working day, but he was also drinking coffee and chain smoking the whole time. Would you consider truck driving a sport? "What about golf? Walking 18 holes carrying a golf bag is hard." Yeah, well, turkey farming is more physically demanding than that, and probably more exciting to watch than golf is, but you probably wouldn't consider that a sport, would you? "Of course not, that's stupid." I exacerbated the issue by conceding that, in my opinion, competitive ballroom dancing is a sport, as well as competitive cheerleading. And so on.

The trick to all of this, of course, is that eventually you have to come full circle by demonstrating how this constitutes critical thinking. For instance, there was one girl who got (I thought) unreasonably heated about my contention that baseball is a game, not a sport. So I challenged her to consider why she was so upset, especially since I had never once intimated that being a "game" was in any way a discredit to baseball. In fact, I had up to that point lauded baseball for its complexities in spite of having already stated that I find it boring as hell to watch and don't otherwise like it. I asked her why she was so married to this term "sport," and to ask herself whether or not one term or the other in any way affected her appreciation of the game. Moreover, I challenged the class to identify any assumptions they might have about those two terms and to consider, specifically, what differences exist between them. For instance, are all sports also games, and/or vice versa? Or is sport simply a sub-category of games and, if so, what criteria must be present to qualify as such? Blah blah blah, you get what I'm getting at. Mostly I just wanted to put this out there as an idea you might resort to in a moment of desperation for class feedback, and from which you can derive a pretty substantial lesson on critical thinking.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Critical Review as Transition

Instead of jumping straight from the Memoir to the Textual Analysis (TA), I've chosen to include a transitional assignment in the form of a Critical Review (CR). By doing so, I am basically trying to employ (among others) Gerald Graff's thesis that we all have vernacular interests that, if carefully utilized in the classroom, can be successfully translated into a valuable academic experience. So, according to the criteria for this assignment, students are allowed to choose a short story, poem, CD, movie, etc., that they already either passionately like or dislike. Subsequently, they must then compose a review (850-1000 words) either recommending or condemning their choice by focusing their critique on two to four of its key elements (i.e., plot, character development, diction, imagery, cinematography, score, and so on). I think this is a relevant and beneficial lead-in to the TA for obvious reasons, not the least of which being that it challenges them to begin thinking critically (via analysis) about their chosen "text" in order to justify whatever opinion(s) they already have about it. Likewise, the CR is also helpful to the extent that students bring with them a fair amount of enthusiasm; that is, like most of us, they are relatively eager for an opportunity to share and discuss a vernacular (i.e., non-academic) interest about which they feel strongly, even if they have not yet made much effort to examine the precise reasons for their feelings.

As further preparation for the TA, then, I also required that they find and bring to class a published review of the sort they think they might do for the assignment (i.e., movie review, CD review, etc.). Then I had them get into to groups of three and analyze each other's published reviews with regard for the following: thesis, tone, assertions, evidence/support, and concrete examples. In this way, then, they gained some preliminary experience in formal textual analysis and acquired at least one potential model for their own reviews. Rough drafts aren't due until Thursday, though, so I don't yet have any concrete evidence to suggest whether or not this is going to work as well I hope it does. If nothing else, I think it will help mitigate the abrupt shift from the personal style of writing we encourage for the Memoir to the more strictly academic/formal approach and style of writing required by the TA.